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At the Forefront of Parkinson's Disease Research

Soraya Bardien

Soraya Bardien is the youngest of six children and she was born during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Her mother (despite having only attained up to grade 3 schooling) was a great teacher and motivator and helped her overcome some learning difficulties during the first few years of school. Soraya completed her undergraduate and doctoral degrees at the University of Cape Town and has spent short research training visits at laboratories in the UK and USA.
She is married to Mark and they have one busy teenage son, Justin. During her free time she likes to spend time outdoors close to nature either gardening or in the mountains around Cape Town in order to rejuvenate her soul!

Q: Tell us about yourself and your practice (research and faculty teaching). What prompted you to become a scientist?

Bardien: I am an associate professor in the field of human molecular genetics at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. My current research interest focuses on identifying genetic causes of Parkinson's disease. This is a common neurodegenerative disorder affecting movement and mood.
My research team comprises one postdoctoral researcher, one MSc student, four PhD students, and we collaborate with a number of overseas and local collaborators. I am also involved with lecturing of BSc(Hons) students and medical registrars at the Faculty.
At school I really enjoyed biology. I also had an inspiring biology teacher in high school who made us write our own notes to prepare us for university. At university I initially studied microbiology (study of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses) but later realised that I preferred the medical field. I then switched to human genetics as I found it fascinating that some diseases could be transmitted in families and the fact that a single change or defect in over 3 billion bases of DNA could cause devastating and incurable diseases.
In my current research it is still a huge thrill to find the particular DNA defect causing a disease in a patient and to be able to take that information back to them and their family members.

Q: Can you share with us the challenges that you faced in the past as a student and the challenges that you face today as a researcher and faculty member?

Bardien: Challenges as a student were many as I came from a disadvantaged background. I remember that I struggled with the laboratory experiments during the first year of university because the laboratory at my school had burnt down and there had been no funds to rebuild it. Also, I realised that many of my fellow students were more confident and knowledgeable than me as they had a stronger foundation at school but this just motivated me to work harder as I realised that it was all up to me.
Challenges today in my job include the constant battle to find research funds, and to attract talented and dedicated students to do the research. One has to be able to motivate oneself as the battles do not get easier; one just gets better at handling the problems. Also, often laboratory experiments do not work despite repeating them many times so one has to see the bigger picture and to continue trying.

Q: What are your greatest successes?

Bardien: One of my earlier successes was laying the foundation for the identification of a new gene that causes the inherited eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. This finding was published in 1995 in a prestigious scientific journal. I remember that was the first scientific article that I ever wrote and I worked on it under rather stressful but exciting conditions while on my first trip overseas when studying at a collaborator's laboratory in London.
Other later successes include getting new research projects "off the ground" with very little support from others.

Q: How can we increase the number of women entering the fields of science and technology in South Africa?

Bardien: I would suggest that we start at a junior/ primary school level. We need to get girls interested in science and technology from a young age so that they can view it as a career option. Also, we need women in STEM-related careers to do more talks at schools and to host school girls for 1-2 weeks periods at their workplaces.

Q: What tips and advices do you have for underprivileged students in South Africa, Africa and the US who want to enter STEM's studies?

Bardien: Do not let your background be an obstacle or limitation to you pursuing a career in any field that interests you. In fact, let that be a motivation to work harder than your peers who come from more advantaged backgrounds. You have to be prepared to make personal sacrifices which will mean studying and doing assignments when others are going to parties and having fun etc. but you will later reap the benefits of your sacrifices.
Let your inner strength and not your circumstances define what you are capable of achieving.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)